Floating Away to Motu Tu Vahine

Tahaa - Photo by lander2006

Tahaa’s lagoon, French Polynesia – Photo by lander2006

Ah, to take the trip of a lifetime…and be able to speak French while doing it.

For our friends John and Beth, this meant winging halfway around the world to the snorkeling heaven of isolated Motu Tu Vahine in French Polynesia.

Even years later, to hear them tell it, it seems the rêve is still very much alive.

John and Beth, an L.A. couple who’ve been happily married since 1993, celebrated one of their many anniversaries by taking a nine-day fantasy trip to Tahiti…or next door to it, anyway.

French Polynesia’s Society Islands are chiefly comprised of 14 islands in two groups, Windward and Leeward; the most famous in the Windward group are Tahiti, Bora Bora and Moorea. In the Leeward group, lesser-known Tahaa shelters a few tiny islands in its reef-ringed lagoon.

Photo by John Rogers

Welcome sign from the dock

One of these is Motu Tu Vahine, the private, 10-acre host to Vahine Island, a small gem of a resort owned by an expat couple from France. Beth found a mention of it in an old Daily Candy post (sadly, which is no longer published), and was hooked on a place that seemed so removed from both work and big city life. It took her and John almost a full day to get there, but oh man, was it worth it.

In late October/early November 2006, they took Air Tahiti Nui direct from L.A. to Papeete (about nine hours), the only city on Tahiti. From Papeete, they hopped aboard an hour’s flight on a mid-sized plane to Raiatea, the second largest of the Society Islands. From here, they took a peaceful 45-minute boat ride across a breezy bay to Vahine Island…and it was still only 9:30 in the morning.

The resort’s nine bungalows aren’t generally ready until noon, so Beth and John were greeted at the dock with a cold drink and an invitation to use their shower facilities and resting lounge with couches and deck chairs, or take a dip in the bath-warm water while they waited.

Three of the bungalows here are overwater, but because of high temperatures in autumn, Beth wisely chose the ocean-view, palm-shaded deluxe version on dry land. Know that Vahine Island uses ceiling fans in lieu of air conditioning, and it’s advisable to close windows and doors at night to protect yourselves from mosquitoes.

View from John and Beth's bungalow

View from John and Beth’s bungalow

Neighboring Tahaa is known as “Vanilla Island,” and the flavoring, as well as tropical fruit, infuses much of the resort’s exquisite food. The owner/husband is also the resident chef; his breakfasts feature flaky, fresh-baked croissants and a dinner menu offering two choices for each course.  Prices here are nothing short of exorbitant, but meal plans are available; in this colonial European environment, though, snacks are not. Bottled water might also bankrupt you ($8/bottle), but Beth warns that even her iron stomach was upset by the tap water.

Many of Vahine’s staff were area locals who sailed over daily, most of Vahine’s other guests were European, and French was the language of choice. Beth, a dual-Canadian citizen who has lived in Montreal, is fluent and found Tahitian French easy to follow; other American guests didn’t have such consistent luck. When Beth researched French Polynesia, she read repeatedly that English is widely spoken, but can only assume this is more true of larger resorts on larger islands. Both at Vahine Island and during a luggage handling snafu at Papeete’s airport, her French proved enormously helpful. If you’re contemplating a trip to this area, it’s a good idea to at least learn some French words and phrases.

Oddly, for three days Beth couldn’t remember the French word for “towels” (serviettes), but she sure as hell remembered the word for “shark” (requin): Vahine Island’s lagoon is home to a whole  bunch of blacktip reef sharks.  They’re quite shy, but still –  they average six feet long and cluster in groups of about 20.

Photo by Mila Zinkova

Puffer fish – Photo by Mila Zinkova

Besides blacktips, the resort’s healthy reef offers a whole other array of spectacular fauna. On their first day of snorkeling, John and Beth were delighted by a puffer fish about the size of a loaf of bread. Following it into a hollowed-out stand of coral, they peered into the shadows…and saw an eye the size of a tennis ball. This was Mom, as in this part of the world, an adult puffer fish grows to be roughly the size of a pudgy 10 year-old kid.

Also spotted: Pale red octopi with green, knowing eyes; clown and angel fish; barracudas; eels; large stingrays; and most menacingly, some deadly, spiny stonefish. Steer clear and even when just wading in the water, wear aqua socks or waterproof shoes on your feet.

The land hosts a motley crew of harmless but crawly creatures. While idling on the beach one day, Beth saw a coconut shell begin to move, having become the new home of an enormous hermit crab. One night she mistook a noisily clicking lizard for an unbalanced ceiling fan, and one afternoon while lolling in bed, two mating lizards fell right onto her from above; all three if them were shocked and took off in different directions. Later, she and John were sure they saw a big lizard wiggling along…only to find it was in fact a massive millipede, drawing graceful S’s in the soft white sand.

The resort’s resident cat was far more welcome to these two fans of felines. Living the life of Riley, this kitty had trained its people to throw bread in the water to attract fish, giving it a chance to pounce on a fresh meal.

There are several activities on Vahine Island, but John and Beth stuck mostly to the water; oddly, John didn’t seem keen on her learning volleyball from the handsome, topless, sarong-clad oiled and oiled instructor with the easy smile. Hmm, go figure.

Sunset on Motu tu Vahine

Sunset on Motu tu Vahine

Each night, guests would gather by the beach for cocktails during gorgeous, surreal sunsets, awaiting the call to dinner. One evening, a shimmering piece of electronic music by composer Mike Oldfield was soothing the Europeans into a blissful state, but John and Beth sat up straight in their chairs at the chilling sound of Tubular Bellsbetter known as the theme song from The Exorcist.

Soon, though, they relaxed and laughed, and the evening flowed along in perfect peace. On Motu Tu Vahine, it seems there’s a chance to see everything scary as simple, calm, funny – and lovely.


  1. Looks amazing!!! This destination is certainly on my ‘must-see’ list 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

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